Thursday, July 21, 2011

Being mentally ill

I found myself thinking about being interviewed today, and how rare it has been, and why.

Being asked why a three year degree programme lasted four years became the defining question of my first interviews as a recent graduate. It was a question that became a deal breaker. When you explained the reason, with a naive innocence that I quickly came to regret and retreat from, you watched people's openness fold up and disappear. I had to explain that I had a 'mental breakdown' (though it was more complex than that) and that life had shuddered to a depressed halt, now though happily resolved in so far as these can be. I was now a fully functioning person.

This did not matter. History mattered: the label of unreliability had fallen on you. You were out of consideration. the body language was eloquent on this point.

One of these employers was the then named 'Spastics Society' and here was an organization working in disability that could not consider absorbing a recently disabled person. They were not prepared to give to space to them. I still carry the image of the interviewer's facial expression in my head.

As a result, I had to create my own role, and my own unique strategy to find it. It was almost twenty years before I had my next formal interview by which time whether three or four years was an irrelevance. I did have one 'interview' I recall that made me the director of a venture philanthropy fund but that consisted of sitting in the chairman's garden discussing Wittgenstein and how language related to the world: a very lateral kind of interview from a highly gifted and generous man.

This experience of marginalization I suppose is, in part, why I do what I do. It was decidedly a reality underlying the foundation of Basic Needs (http://www.basicneeds.org.uk/). I recall telling the exploratory group of trustees this story when we were in India together (a fact that demonstrates my trust in them) and telling one of the people I met in Bangalore who happily me told me, 'I am mad you know' that I had been too. He went on to tell me very precisely what kind of work he thought he could do (and not do) to help his rehabilitation. The juxtaposition of madness and irrationality is only partially true (and creates a wholly unhelpful set of stereotypes).

It does remain one of the guiding experiences of my life (and not only because of the insight it gave me into mental illness) both because of the illness and the subsequent rejection - that granted empathy to anyone suffering mental illness and fashioned life choices that reverberate to this day.

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